A man accused of shooting to death a local lawyer and insurance agent visiting the attorney’s office in 1999 will likely never stand trial for the deaths because he is not competent, and he was committed to a mental institution.
The ruling on Walter Shell’s future came Monday at a hearing in Washington County Criminal Court. Judge Jerry Beck ordered Shell be sent to Moccasin Bend, a facility in Chattanooga, until he become competent or until his death.
Dr. Steven R. Lawhon testified briefly Monday about his evaluation of Shell and told Beck that it’s unlikely Shell will ever be able to stand trial.
Shell’s incompetency to stand trial is not a totally new revelation in the 13-year-old double shooting that killed John D. Goodin, an attorney and former city judge, and Paul “Trey” Keyser, a local insurance agent visiting Goodin’s office.
But what is new for Walter Shell, 84, is that Judge Jerry Beck dismissed the two counts of first-degree murder and signed a civil commitment ordering Shell be held until he is competent or until his death.
If Shell is ever deemed competent, District Attorney General Tony Clark said the charges will be reinstated.
Shell was arrested the same day as the shootings, March 18, 1999, and gave a statement that he had killed the men.
Shortly after his arrest, Shell was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and later indicted on those charges.
But the court case didn’t go much further due to Shell’s mental status. Since his arrest, Shell has been shuffled from Washington County jail to mental hospitals and to the Department of Correction special needs facility.
Psychologists and psychiatrists have conducted numerous mental evaluations during that time and Shell has never shown any sign of improvement.
There was only one claim that he was no longer a danger to himself or others, a decision made by officials at Lakeshore Mental Hospital that coincided with a sudden decline in Shell’s physical health.
That report came in 2009, just a few months after a report from the same doctor at Lakeshore indicated Shell remained incompetent and a danger.
Beck held a hearing at that time, but no one knew what to do with Shell. Eventually he was sent to DeBerry, the Department of Correction’s special needs facility in Nashville. Until Monday, Shell had been at DeBerry since September 2010.
Goodin’s daughter, Dee Goodin, said the commitment to Moccasin Bend doesn’t change the fact her father and Keyser were killed, nor does it administer adequate justice.
“Justice as not served in this case. Three families — the Keysers, my family and the Shells — have borne this burden for way too long,” she said.
She was also critical of the private mental health system’s relationship with the criminal justice system.
“Money was the impetus for this crime and I believe the reason for Mr. Shell’s extended stay at Lakeshore,” she said. “As long as that facility found him incompetent from evaluations I assume they charged to the state, they were allowed to ‘keep him’ and charge for his keep,” she said.
She believes that when Shell’s estate ran dry, “they kicked him to the curb. My monthly check of $50 for the wrongful death suit stopped one month after he was released from Lakeshore.”
Goodin said Lakeshore had a glaring conflict of interest — “seeing justice was served or lining their own pockets. I believe they chose the latter.”
After the hearing on Monday, Clark said he has no proof that Lakeshore’s decision was based on Shell’s monetary backing but found it “troublesome” that the man’s health declined at the same time Lakeshore said he was no longer dangerous.
Clark said he wasn’t happy the court had to dismiss the criminal charges to order the civil commitment, but was glad Shell will be in a secure facility.
“If his mental status changes for the good, the state will reinstate these charges,” Clark said.
The day Shell killed Goodin and Keyser, he was apparently angry because he thought he was shorted $100,000 in his ex-wife’s will and blamed Goodin for it.
After the shootings, Shell drove to Jonesborough and turned himself in at the Washington County Detention Center.
Beck filed an order immediately after the hearing on Monday directing she sheriff’s office to transport Shell to Chattanooga.